The Day A Mexican Museum Sued An Artist For Plagiarizing The Aztec Calendar

May 25, 2017

|Rodrigo Ayala
aztec calendar plagiarism

In 2008, the remains of the Unbelievable, a legendary ship, were found in the East-African coast. The ship wrecked almost two thousand years ago, and since then, no one really knew where it was. Among the objects found on the ship was the famous Aztec Calendar Stone, one of the most representative pieces of pre-Columbian culture. Specifically the one that dominated the entire Mexican Valley before it was conquered by the Spaniards in 1521. Along with this impressive piece, they found several statues, jewels, and other objects belonging to different cultures around the world.

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The Unbelievable was more than 6 meters wide and weighed more than 460 tons. It was one of the fastest and most famous ships of its time. Unfortunately, it's believed that a storm made it sink, taking with it a huge load of cultural treasures. These managed to survive, but their state is not as glorious as before due to the saltiness of the water and the sea waste that damaged them. Some pieces even have coral embedded on them. However, many historians and archaeologists are more than happy to recover many important pieces they thought lost forever.

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What you have just read is a fictional account created for the exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable by the British artist Damien Hirst. He always wanted to make an artistic exhibition departing from the premise of a hypothetical rescue of a shipwreck containing hundreds of jewels and important values of the world.

 Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is a "collection of pieces influenced by a wide range of cultures from around the world and history, that seek to honor the most important and iconic pieces of the past," according to Mexican newspaper Excélsior. 

Hirst's collection is being exhibited at Punta della Dogana and the Palazzo Grassi in Italy. His pieces (200 in total) were made from many different materials: marble, bronze, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, resin, thermo-lacquered aluminum, printed polyester, LED lights, painted aluminum, and fiberboard, among others. Hirst's intention is to make the spectator wonder about the authenticity of what they're looking at.

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However, his artistic idea wasn't well received in Mexico. The non-authorized reproduction of the Aztec Calendar caused a huge controversy that ended in a lawsuit made by the INAH (the National Institute of Anthropology and History). The federal legislation protecting monuments, archaeological sites, artistic and historical goods in Mexico, states that any attempt of copying or reproducing cultural goods must be previously authorized by this government organization, something Hirst didn't request. Besides that, assuming that he had asked for permission and that the INAH had approved it, the piece must've been marked as "Authorized reproduction by the competent Institute," something that, of course, this piece doesn't have.

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Enrique Álvarez Tostado, consultant director of INAH's legal coordination, explained that "in the case of Hirst copy, there's no previous authorization, and for that, we'll proceed to the regularization and corresponding payment that the law refers to."

According to Excélsior, the fee Hirst would have to pay for this fault is of 2,000 to 3,000 Mexican pesos (around 100 to 150 American dollars), a ridiculously low sum for a multimillionaire artist like Hirst. Calculations have shown that each of the pieces from Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is worth from 500,000 to 5 million dollars. Shouldn't the law be more severe to a man who, even if he didn't know what he was doing, affected the image of such an important piece? He's one of the wealthiest artists in the world, and it seems he's making art out of indulgence rather than out of an artistic calling. He's probably just laughing right now about the insignificant amount he has to pay.

So, is it valid for any artist to take such an important and transcendent cultural piece as the Aztec calendar, and rework it? We're talking about a piece that defines the identity of an ancient society that still continues to be a strong influence in Mexico's identity.

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Damien Hirst is one of the few living artists that earns a lot of money for his work. He's also one of the most controversial ones. He once stated that, "I also said I didn’t trust people who didn’t smoke and then I gave up." He stated this when he took back what he said about never making an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, one of England's most prestigious museums.

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He belongs to the YBAs (Young British Artists), although none of them is as criticized (or loved) as he is, especially by his main detractor, Julian Spalding, a critic, writer, and commissioner, who even wrote the book: Con Art: Why you should sell your Damien Hirst while you can (2012).

Hirst's work is quite diverse. He plays with shapes, designs, and concepts: animals in formaldehyde, the dismembered body of a pregnant woman, a real size drugstore, the head of a cow being devoured by worms, among many other striking pieces. Just as many loathe him, others adore his work, like late pop singer, George Michael.


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Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards

Rodrigo Ayala

Rodrigo Ayala